Archive for the ‘Iraq’ category

Toxic Thinking

January 11, 2020

Section I – The Birth of an Idea

During the George W Bush Administration, America was introduced to “Neoconservative” thinking.  This oxymoron was intended to reflect an updated version of good old Republican values most Americans recognized if not loved.  Neoconservatives argued that the United States represented the zenith of civilization offering a vibrant economy, military strength, and wholesome values which others would do well to emulate.  A “think tank” named “Project for the New American Century” boasted a foreign policy designed to ensure the 21st century was made in America’s image.  Hmmm.

“W” was not much of a thinker although IMO he eventually realized there was something fishy about his hubris filled, swaggering staff when they preached how America was right and others were not.  “W” was more comfortable wearing nice suits and getting his picture taken then squaring up what his Vice President, Defense Secretary and others were saying with laws and the Constitution.  So “W” side tracked his “compassionate conservative” label and read the scripts subordinates like Dick Cheney gave him.

And then there was 9/11.

The neoconservatives threw open doors and windows, and shouted from roof tops about the exceptionalism of America (google PNAC -Project For A New American Century) and how it was their duty to spread this thinking throughout the world but especially in the Muslim world. 

No sooner had US forces ousted the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan than the neoconservatives set their sights on “nation building”.  “We can’t allow terrorists to highjack Afghanistan again”, the neoconservatives said thumping their chests.

But that wasn’t enough.  Cheney, Rumsfeld, Libby, Wolfowitz, etc pointed at Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and falsely connected him to 9/11.  The Cheney cabal beat and beat war drums until the US invaded and occupied a sovereign country on trumped (pun) charges. 

Black sites, enhanced interrogation (think Nazi Gestapo techniques), and Guantanamo Bay Detention center (created to be outside the jurisdiction of US courts!!!) were products of neoconservative thinking.  Hmmm.

Section II – Rebirth

Fast forward.  Following 8 years under President Barack Obama where logic and reason prevailed, the country elected Donald Trump.  President Trump has turned out to govern in ways lacking logic or reason.  The stage has been set for neoconservatism to return.

The decision to assassinate the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani smacks of Dick Cheney-esq foreign policy.  (If you got the bigger stick, use it.) President Trump breathlessly raced to center stage in order to proclaim the assassination was on his order.  Trump thinks he is a tough guy despite having had bone spurs when he had the chance to go to Vietnam.

One must be careful, however, in assigning credit or blame to President Trump with respect to the assassination.  The President is an opportunist’s opportunist.  One should instead look to those advising the President, who would gladly hand the President a loaded gun in a crowded room.

Neoconservatives are paternalistic ideologues who exemplify “father knows best”.  Issues are reduced to black or white decisions which of course the neoconservative knows the best path forward.  Regrettably, the world is not a dichotomy of choices where one path is clearly superior to the other.  But authoritarian, paternalistic thinkers do not handle this possibility very well.

Iran is from an American’s perspective an opaque place where theocracy rules, women are subjugated, and free speech does not exist.  Iran, however, is not illogical, and like Russia, has adopted a foreign policy which buffers the homeland with client organizations operating in neighboring countries.  Iran does not want another Saddam Hussein ruling a neighboring country and subsequently invading Iran.  Hence General Soleimani’s work as a Middle East “trouble maker” is not likely to end with his death.

Assassinating the General will not change Iran’s foreign policy, it will simply change who is pursuing that policy.  Neoconservatives do not seem to recognize this subtlety and when confronted with more “bad behavior”, neocons will most likely reach for the hammer over using their words.

Section III – Teaching Points

There are ample reasons why President Trump ought be a one term President which have nothing to do with this recent assassination.  With respect to Iran, however, the President has willingly become a tool of neocons.  Judgement?  While the buck stops with the President, voters would do well to realize there are neoconservatives behind many bushes and trees, poised to jump out and take control of a putty-like President.  

In a strange way, the combination of President Trump and Neoconservative backers combines the worst of two dangerous forces.  One must assume that neocon motivation is at least in part founded upon energy sector driven economics.  The President has demonstrated a fondness for energy companies already and his America First motto fits Neoconservative rhetoric like a glove.  

President Trump has tried anti-globalism, embraced trade wars, and championed xenophobia.  Is neoconservatism next?

    

The Middle East Mess

December 13, 2018

Recently, PBS broadcasted a documentary “Letters From Baghdad” which tells the story of Gertrude Bell, the British writer, traveler, and expert enormously knowledgeable about Palestine.  Ms Bell, in the early 20th century, advocated for Palestine self rule and self determination following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.  Modern Iraqi borders bear Ms Bell’s efforts.

The Middle East we know today presents a bewildering array of seemingly intractable  contradictions.  The Israeli-Arab impasse, the Shiite-Sunni conflict, and what makes one want to be an infamous suicide bombers, seem to defy logic.  

Gertrude Bell, however, foresaw this Middle East dysfunction.  On one hand, she opposed the Balfour’s Declaration which called for a Jewish homeland because she didn’t believe the Arabs could accept giving up land to Israelis.  On the other hand, Ms Bell worked diligently advising British Governors how to best administer the region.  Subsequently, Bell proposed boundaries creating and defining an Iraqi State. Bell thought these boundaries would encompass a State internally balanced (Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd) and that no one sub-group would have enough power to rule over the others. 

Time and the sheer destructive influence of oil wealth have shown Gertrude Bell’s hopes to be unfulfilled but most surprisingly, modern scholars are just as befuddled on how to nurture a modern Middle East.  Events such as George Bush’s Iraq War, Israel’s West Bank expansions, and the Sunni Saudi Arabia face off against Shiite Iran present puzzles in the 21st century.  Oil (and the greed that follows), irrational and incompatible religious traditions, and millions of poor and largely uneducated residents characterize the Middle East but do not suggest how to end the nonsense. 

For example,

  • in Yemen, norther tribesman (Houthis) allied with Iran are fighting against Saudi backed “government” troops and in the process destroying everyone and everything in their way.  Why? 
  • Hezbollah and Hamas militias allied with Iran continually are plotting to attack Israel.  Why?
  • Israel, simultaneously, nibbles and then gobbles Palestinian land on the West Bank claiming that the bible said the land was Israel’s. Why?
  • And, what makes anyone think that blowing themselves up and killing other innocent men, women, and children makes sense?  Why?

A little more than 100 years after Gertrude Bell’s work the Middle East remains a mess. 

Trapped By Words

January 22, 2018

During the 2016 Presidential campaign, Donald Trump joined other Republicans who heaped criticism upon former President Obama for the existence of ISIS. Joining people like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Trump stressed that the Obama strategic decision to withdraw combat troops from Iraq was a sign of weakness and in a Trump Administration, there would be no weakness.

ISIS, Trump said, was a direct result of Obama’s foreign policy.

After one year as President, I wonder what President Trump thinks? I am not concerned about what he tweets but rather what he really thinks.

ISIS is just another name for al Qaeda or Taliban or Muslim Brotherhood or Hezbollah or Hamas. These radical Islamic groups have existed for many years and represent Muslim factions that seek power and find strict Muslim fundamentalism backed by guns as an effective technique to seize power and hold it.

History has shown that these groups can be held in check only through authoritarian measures.

Had Republicans owned up to George W Bush’s doomed decision to invade and occupy Iraq (and to a lesser extent, President Bush’s decision to allow the morphing of US Afghan foreign policy to nation building), in other words owning up to having opened Pandora’s box in the first place, a far more comprehensive foreign policy might have been found. Alas that did not happen.

So, today the Government finds itself surreptitiously increasing American military presence in Afghanistan and doing the same in Syria and Iraq. The current American posture is ready made for an unforeseen event (like a full scale ambush of US soldiers or an intra-region squabble between Middle East neighbors trapping American forces).

One might cut President Trump a break on this since Pandora’s box is open regardless if Republicans won’t own up. But the President is not going to get any break because he has chosen to side publicly with Israel when common sense would dictate the role of “honest broker”.

What could possibly motivate President Trump to announce moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem?

The US invasion and occupation of Iraq is now woven into the modern Middle East history. For the time being, radical Muslim fundamentalism has access to money and weapons.  There is also plenty of “ugly American” examples which appeal to poor, less educated Arabs and provide the necessary support military units need.

President Trump was, from day 1 of his Administration, trapped by the words of denial by his and other leading Republicans. During President Trump’s first year in office, he has managed to increasingly trap himself (and all of us too).   In a Middle East world where no exit can be seen, cautious words speak louder than foolish ones.

Afghanistan, The Middle East All Over Again?

May 13, 2017

The Trump Administration is mulling once again taking a greater presence in Afghanistan. The concern these official site is the growing Taliban strength and the clandestine support the Taliban are receiving from Russia. Government sources are leaking that increased military presence is intended to drive the Taliban back to negotiations and not to pursue nation building. Hmmm.

The Taliban resurgence should surprise no one. Afghanistan is closer to a “failed” State than an emerging democracy due to the ethnic and tribal difference reinforced by years of corruption and drug dealing. Before 9/11, the Taliban did ruled Afghanistan but only with the brute and cruel force of its boots. Is that the type of Afghan Government the US wishes to emerge?

With respect to Russian involvement, please get me a glass of water as I sit down to catch my breath. Who would have thought? When Russia invaded and attempted to occupy Afghanistan in the 80’s, it was the US who armed and covertly trained the opposition (mostly Taliban). Pay back?

On a different front, there is less but similar talk about Syria and Iraq where American advisors are helping Kurds and Iraqis to retake Mosel and Raqqa and rid those cities of ISIS control. Ending the Syrian civil war and driving ISIS out of Iraq appear clearly worthwhile objectives, most would agree. Not surprisingly, more American advisors and air support are felt necessary to provide combat help, training, and tactical advice.  Hmmm.

Of the Trump Administration senior appointees, Secretary of Defense Mattis and National Security Advisor H R McMaster are consider top shelf, experienced, principled, and capable. Both Mattis and McMaster should be expected to act prudently and with the country’s best interest in mind. Never the less, any talk of increasing American military presence in the Muslim world should worry us. Why?

There are several reasons.

  1. Increasing troop presence can easily lead to the proverbial slippery slope. One foot in will quickly lead to a second, third, and, fourth step and possibly many more steps.
  2. Greater US presence, while arguments can be made about short term objectives, really begs what are the US long term interests and goals.
  3. And most importantly, what would be the exit plan should our goals not be reached or our interests change?

Former President Obama had chosen a foreign policy based upon urging Muslim countries solve their own differences (mainly religious, Sunni versus Shiite, moderate versus radical fundamentalist) in order to earn US military support. With President Trump it is unclear whether he views the greater Middle East similarly or even whether he is capable of holding any strategic (versus tactical) views. Therein lies the danger.

Committing US forces without a strategic vision harkens memories of heroic US military efforts followed by constant erosion of any gains. Hmmm.

With a President who excels in distraction, Americans must be careful not to cheer the commitment of more young men and women to a war which cannot be won.

High Fives Yet… Hmmm, Maybe Not Yet

December 30, 2015

National Public Radio aired a report this morning which should awake the sensibilities in anyone who cares to be sensible. The report covered  Presidential strategies in the face of political opposition. The case in point was President Eisenhower’s response to American panic when Russia began to flex its muscles in the early 1950s.

President Eisenhower was well aware that the Soviet Union’s strategic intent was ultimately to defeat the capitalist West.  The Soviet Union thought the West would tire of constant little wars and communism would triumph over capitalism in the market place.

Eisenhower concluded that the least desirable option was to allow America to get involved in a string of land wars. Eisenhower saw the uncertainty of these types of conflicts and that they would drain US resources.  Even more to the point, these little wars could lead to a nuclear confrontation.

Eisenhower elected to avoid land engagements and confront the Soviet Union with nuclear containment.

Critics, the same type as the neoconservatives who championed the Iraq invasion and occupation, railed against the weak and feckless policy. Many openly championed a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Hmmm.

History, not without a few white knuckle moments, has proven Eisenhower’s direction a wise strategy.

President Obama has also taken a lonely path with his Middle East strategy. Obama has withdrawn combat troops from Iraq (and is well on the way in Afghanistan) because local ground wars are loosing propositions. Instead, President Obama has offered military support, including air power, to Middle East nations willing to fight terrorists.

The President’s strategy has been described as wrong, indecisive, and feckless. GOP candidates have promised “carpet bombing” and more troops to root out ISIS, and… (there is nothing offered about the future from these candidates).

In the past few days, Iraqi troops have retaken the city of Ramadi from ISIS in a campaign which combined American support (air power) and Iraqi “boots on the ground”. Hmmm.

It is too soon to declare victory for the President’s strategy. Time will need to show Iraq’s resolve to push ISIS out of the rest of Iraq and that the Shiite dominated central Government can govern the Sunni western Iraq. But what a good beginning.

Presidential strategies often are lonely positions to hold. With political opposition who value winning at all cost, the responsibility of leading our nation in a world still populated with nuclear weapons is a serious task.

President Obama seems at this point to be the only adult in the room.

A Suspension Of Common Sense

November 19, 2015

The blood bath that took place in Paris last Friday truly would qualify for the moniker of “a suspension of common sense”. What possibly could the terrorists have thought was achievable by their suicidal acts?

There is no way the Western world will walk away from Iraq-Syria-Lebanon and cede the land to a radical Islamic regime bent on using theology to accumulate personal wealth for its leaders. They will not be satisfied with a little, they will want it all.

There is no way “Shiite” Iran will allow it either. And even “Sunni” Saudi Arabia cannot condone ISIS behavior. In short, sooner or later, ISIS and its current group of leaders, just like Osama ben Laden or Mullah Mohamed will cease to lead and in all likelihood be followed by other opportunists.

Money has a funny way of bending the minds of otherwise sane people.

But Paris isn’t the only place where there appears to be a suspension of common sense. Look no further than Washington DC and the GOP Presidential primary candidates.

The GOP has seized upon the vanishingly small risk associated with accepting Syrian refugees and in just days have build it into a do or die issue with President Obama. Governors (all but one Republican) have pompously announced they will not accept any Syrian refugees. House Republicans are now rushing new legislation through Congress to codify what would qualify as a fully “vetted” refugee. A procedure which no requires 18-24 months would become prohibitively long. Hmmm.

These are the same people who claim while beating their breasts that America is an exceptional country. Hmmm.

Occasionally, there will be a documentary about the internment of American citizens of Japanese decent during World War II. The move, which was clearly unconstitutional, stands as a stain on America and separates the US from Nazi Germany only in that the Government never intended to exterminate Japanese citizens.

By labeling Syrian refugees potential terrorists, the GOP is reaching back to the World War II xenophobia which took hold of the American spirit. Instead of exceptional, American now looks vulnerable and frightened.

Apparently the GOP doesn’t care and sees fanning these flames as a sure way to garner votes. Hmmm.

ISIS and World War II

October 27, 2015

News reports today said President Obama would soon announce his approval of a military plan to move US military assets closer to the front lines in Syria and Iraq. What does that really mean?

On one level moving troops who are already there and not changing their mission seems like “no news news”. This announcement, however, could mean much more. And much more is probably not wise.

As World War II drew to a close, Allied Forces raced towards Berlin intent on getting there before Soviet troops. The race was all about territory and seizing most of Germany and its capital thereby keeping the Soviet Union contained in Eastern Europe. The Soviets had the opposite goal and wish to extend its influence as far as it could.

One possibility for the US Syrian repositioning might be similar to WWII. If one believes Assad is about to fall, then the US might want to have a presence in Syria.  Subsequently, a partitioned Syria might geographically provide the West with territorial advantages helpful in concluding a larger peace plan. In return for Russian withdrawal, the US could agree (without losing face) to withdraw too.

The US Iraq repositioning could follow similar logic but this time towards Iran. Iran will have continuing interests with Iraq and will want a route to resupply its client, Hezbollah, in southern Syria.

There is, unfortunately, another explanation.

“Head to tail” thinking (the opposite of comprehensive) has marked US Middle East involvement since George W Bush’s ill-fated Iraq invasion and occupation.   US military may be just saying they need their special operations personnel closer to the front than where they are currently placed without necessarily thinking about unintended consequences. Just a military tactical adjustment. Hmmm.

Until last week, it had been over two years since a US military member was killed in Iraq. With the death of a special ops master sergeant, the US may be stepping again onto a slippery slope.

The level and quality of Congressional “war talk” is extremely worrisome. There is no shortage of politicians willing to criticize President Obama, calling him weak and lacking any type of Middle East plan. If you listen, however, not a one of these chicken hawks has a comprehensive Middle East plan. The politicians are acutely aware that there is no stomach in the voting American public for another ground war in the Middle East but with elections ahead, these politicians want swagger points.

President Obama needs to demand comprehensive plans from the military which entail only the amount of troops currently there. The illusion that if ISIS were suddenly eliminated there would sunshine and peace in the Middle East must not take root in military or political thinking. ISIS is just the current group of thugs.

The Middle East is fundamentally a mess and will remain so until radical Islam is rejected and a real move to modernity is made. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

One of the great foreign affairs successes of the Cold War went by the name “containment”. US policy was aimed at containing, not eliminating the spread of Soviet Union influence. The US Middle East enemy is not Russia, it is rather the failed States/lawless radical Muslim extremist groups who are set on making a better life for themselves without adopting modernity.

Containment could be the answer once again.